Everything we think, do, and refrain from doing is determined by the brain. The construction of this fantastic machine determines our potential, our limitations, and our characters; we are our brains. Brain research is no longer confined to looking for the cause of brain disorders; it also seeks to establish why we are as we are. It is a quest to find ourselves.
— D.F. Swaab, We Are Our Brains
One could almost say that the brain is a biochemical factory, with neurons and glia as both bureaucracy and workers. Yet, even such a literary reduction wouldn’t really get at the truth of the matter. Jacob Moleschott (1822– 1893) was one of the first to observe that what this factory with all its billions of neurons and trillions of glia produces is what we aptly term the ‘mind’. This process of production from life to death entails: electrical activity, the release of chemical messengers, changes in cell contacts, and alterations in the activity of nerve cells.1
Many of the new technologies as imaging, electromagnetic and biochemical are being used to both study and heal certain long standing malfunctions and neurological disorders in the brain, as well as invasive electro and magnetic therapies applied to patients suffering diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and depression. (Yet, I interject, that these technologies present us a double-edged sword that while on the one hand they can be used to heal they can also be used by nefarious governments to manipulate and harm both external enemies and internal citizenry.)
D.F. Swaab’s book We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s is a gentle introduction for the non-scientist into both the sciences and technologies that have shaped our current understanding of the brain. I wish sometimes I’d spent more time studying the neurosciences years ago, but realize that most of what we now know has made much of even the basic knowledge of ten years ago obsolete. Why? The technological apparatuses have effected an almost overnight revolution in our understanding not of the brain itself, but of the patterns and mappings of the real time processes going on in the brain. What neuroscientists are seeing now with many of these new technologies – and, it is still at an early stage – is the way brain works in real time. This is no small feat. What is difficult is the hit and miss framing of the questions we ask of the brain while we discover what these maps tell us. It was that first physician Hippocrates himself that once said:
It should be widely known that the brain, and the brain alone, is the source of our pleasures, joys, laughter, and amusement, as well as our sorrow, pain, grief, and tears. It is especially the organ we use to think and learn, see and hear, to distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, and the pleasant from the unpleasant. The brain is also the seat of madness and delirium, of the fears and terrors which assail us, often at night, but sometimes even during the day, of insomnia, sleepwalking, elusive thoughts, forgetfulness, and eccentricities.
These neuroscientists following Hippocrates lead are slowly building up a map of the brain that tells us just exactly what many of these processes are communicating below the threshold of consciousness. And that is one of the keys, most of the work of the brain is going on below the threshold all the time: the brain processes experience long before the conscious mind ever does, and filters, data mines, computes, analyses, and produces both those sensations and thoughts that our conscious mind in its illusionary self-confidence thinks is its own self-reflecting power. Most of modern psychology and philosophy was predicated on the notion that something must be going on below consciousness or the ground, if only we could dip down into that mysterious realm of the unconscious or the groundless ground we’d be able to understand once and for all the darkest mysteries of existence. What these speculative psychologists and philosophers lacked was the actual technologies and apparatuses to do just that. It took a combination of the sciences and engineering (or practical sciences) to finally view the actual workings of the unconscious mind – the physical processes of the brain in movement.
I want go into all the arguments of the book. Just one quote at the end:
When I started work as a student doctor in 1966, brain research was the domain of a few mavericks who were regarded with considerable suspicion by society at large. These days, the great social significance and huge potential of this field appear to be universally recognized, and neuroscience has become a top priority at universities and research institutes all over the world, where hundreds of thousands of scientists explore a wide range of technologies. The highly complex research techniques call for specialized scientists, who must work in multidisciplinary teams to achieve new insights. Networks are becoming ever larger and more international, as can be seen from the growing number of authors and affiliations cited at the top of publications.
In the years to come, insights into the molecular biology of brain disorders will produce new objectives for therapeutic strategies. Stimulation electrodes implanted at precise sites in the brain are being used to treat not just Parkinson’s disease but also obsessive-compulsive disorders. Their effect is also being studied in such areas as minimally conscious states, obesity, addiction, and depression. As with all effective therapies, there are side effects. And these can be considerable in the case of Parkinson’s patients undergoing stimulation of the subthalamic nucleus, ranging from obesity to changes in character, impulsive behavior, and even suicide. Psychosis, lack of sexual inhibition, and compulsive gambling have also been reported. Researchers are looking at the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation on depression and tinnitus. This technique is also used to prevent hallucinations among schizophrenic patients. It’s still too new for its side effects to be known. Neuroprosthetics— devices that can replace sensory systems— are becoming ever more sophisticated. One paraplegic had a plate with electrodes implanted into his cerebral cortex that allowed him to control a computer mouse and a prosthetic arm with his mind. Visual prostheses are being developed for the blind. Attempts are being made to carry out repairs in the brain and spinal cord by implanting fragments of fetal brain tissue or stem cells and by initiating gene therapy. (ibid.)
What I find fascinating in the above passage is that obviously the commercial world sees profits in such work or the funding of all these institutions would not be made available: the new neurosciences are becoming Big Business and a part of the Global-Industrial-System. Swaab like many well meaning neuroscientists idealize the future hope of these sciences without ever looking into both the economic and military or intelligence use of these technologies for war, aggression, and commercial/military profit. The second is that as he suggests we seem hell bent on experimenting with peoples lives and in many cases our promise to do good produces dire consequences in actual human degradation (“As with all effective therapies, there are side effects. And these can be considerable in the case…”). And, as usual, in the back of my own mind is all the money being fed into the transhumanist wager, as well as the military use of such new technologies of power and manipulation. The Brain may be our own personal last frontier, and we may discover that the emptiness of Self and the illusion of free-will have been stripped from us forever, but once such knowledge becomes widely accepted what then? In a society so obsessed with obesity, depression, beauty, and immortality will be willingly give up our sense of freedom and allow these new invasive technologies to be used by experts from government and private enterprise to enslave us through sheer pleasure and aesthetic compliance? Swaab himself asks: “When will governments finally develop that much-needed long-term vision to ensure healthier brains for generations to come?” He forgets that most governments in the “free” world are controlled by the dictates of the market place and their cronies, which we all know is profit driven on a short term basis and could care less about the human equation accept as it benefits the stockholders. So governments in the West have no long term goals, just the self-perpetuating myth of capitalism on steroids. Sad, but true!
1. Swaab, D.F. (2014-01-07). We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer’s (Kindle Locations 314-316). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.